The Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team already prolonged its season once in the arena in which it hit the low point of the campaign, and the Tigers hope they will get two more chances to do the same thing this week in a Division I regional tournament.
Central takes a 16-8 record and a nine-game winning streak into a regional semifinal against Dublin Coffman at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 15, at Ohio Dominican. The Tigers clinched their third consecutive district championship and sixth in seven years March 10 at ODU when they held off Westerville North 59-57, six weeks to the day after a 54-33 loss to Hilliard Bradley in the Jared Sullinger Ohio Scholastic Play-by-Play Classic dropped Central to 7-8.
"We just talked about really basic things," coach Eric Krueger said. "I told them I wanted them to do five things - play together and play hard as a team, throw out the league (championship), throw out the district (title) and be coachable. We got wins and it snowballed, and now we're in the regional. But when we were 7-8, I wasn't thinking about that. I just wanted us to play good basketball."
Javohn Garcia and Adrian Nelson each scored 14 points, with the majority coming in the second half, and the ninth-seeded Tigers relied on their defense to hold off fourth-seeded North. Garcia scored 11 points and Nelson scored 10 after halftime, when Central trailed 29-25.
The Tigers used an 8-0 run spanning the third and fourth quarters to pull ahead for good.
Josiah Fulcher and Nelson scored on consecutive possessions with less than two minutes to play and Nelson's fourth dunk of the day sealed the outcome with 59 seconds left.
North pulled with 59-57 on a Jeremiah Keene 3-pointer with 54 seconds remaining, and after a turnover and two timeouts the Warriors had trouble inbounding with 1.5 seconds left and could not get off a final shot.
"We stayed composed and pushed the tempo," Garcia said. "We worked on getting to the rim, dishing it off for the right pass and just playing our game.
"We started slowing them down. They had to take a timeout (at the end of the game) to make us switch our defense and we didn't. All we needed was one stop to get it done."
Central defeated OCC-Ohio Division rival Gahanna 51-41 in a district semifinal March 7 at Watkins Memorial. Jaidon Lipscomb and Nelson each had 13 points and Coleton Landis scored 11 to pace the Tigers.
Jeremiah Francis, a junior point guard and a North Carolina commit who has missed the entire season because of a left knee injury, warmed up before both the Gahanna and North games but said after the district final that he is unlikely to play this season.
The Central-Coffman winner will play Bradley or Reynoldsburg in the regional final at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 17, at ODU. The regional champion advances to a state semifinal March 23 at Ohio State.
Central swept a pair of league games against Reyn-oldsburg, winning 72-57 on Dec. 22 and 63-58 on Feb. 2.
The Tigers are seeking their second consecutive regional championship and third overall. They lost to Cincinnati Moeller 57-47 in a state semifinal last season and won their only state title in 2012.
"This is an amazing feeling," Nelson said. "We came out sluggish (against North) ... but they have such good shooters that we had to lock down on defense or we were going to lose the game. We just got back to what we do."
Branson competes at state in wrestling
Wrestling coach Jason Allen's high hopes for sophomore Bo Branson were validated when the latter competed in his first Division I state tournament last week, and unshaken when Branson went 0-2.
Competing at 106 pounds, Branson lost to Wadsworth's Mikey Lewarchick 7-3 in the first round March 8 at Ohio State and was eliminated a few hours later with a 12-0 loss to Shane Heil of Berea-Midpark.
Branson, who began wrestling as an eighth-grader and competed on junior varsity as a freshman, finished 37-10.
"Getting here is an honor in itself, especially considering Bo wrestled (junior varsity) last year," Allen said. "He might have been impatient in the first period of his first match and he started forcing things. Had he not done that in the first period, it might have changed the outcome.
"The second match, (Heil) was tough. Bo got a tough draw, but Heil is tough and my message to him was what he's feeling now, what do we do to ensure he never feels that again? There are things he's willing to change over the summer to ensure he has an even better year next year."
Central did not score at state. Lakewood St. Edward (170.5) won its state-record 32nd title and 20th in 22 years as 70 teams scored.
Branson, who finished second in a sectional Feb. 24 at Upper Arlington and third at district March 2 and 3 at Hilliard Darby, leads a group of expected returnees that includes three other district qualifiers in juniors Trevor Mangahas (113, 29-10) and Silas Pearson (170, 26-9) and sophomore Marcus Zullo (145, 33-8).
Central went 3-2 in the OCC-Ohio to tie Gahanna and Grove City for second, behind Lancaster (5-0) and ahead of Reynoldsburg (1-4) and Pickerington North (0-5).
Led by senior Grey Brancifort's championship at 220, the Tigers finished fourth (172) of 10 teams at sectional, behind champion Coffman (212), and had seven district qualifiers.
At district, Central finished 22nd (28.5) behind champion Lancaster (170) as 38 teams scored, and the top four finishers in each weight class advanced to state.
Two other wrestlers reached 20 wins in seniors Jimmy Castro (heavyweight, 29-13) and Noah Dotson (132, 23-16).
"We had a young team this year, but next year those guys will use the experience they got this year to do really good things," Allen said.
@ThisWeekDaveAt a glance
*Finishes: Tied for second in OCC-Ohio, fourth at sectional, 22nd at district, did not score at state
*Seniors lost: Grey Brancifort, Jimmy Castro, Noah Dotson, Devin Hargrow and Grant Meek
*Key returnees: Bo Branson, Trevor Mangahas, Silas Pearson and Marcus Zullo